Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Nice Production of Noel and Gertie
at Center REPertory Graced by Two Talented Performers

Also see Richard's reviews of The Typographer's Dream and Family Jewels

Celia Shuman and Mark Farrell
Center REPertory Company is currently presenting the lovely musical revue Noel and Gertie, which was devised by Sheridan Morley in Hong Kong. I saw a wonderful production at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth in 1970 starring Edward Petherbridge as Noel and Susan Hampshire as Gertie - they captured the great legends to a T. Later, I saw a revival in London with Ian Lavender (from the BBC production of Dad's Army) with Kate O'Mara. Approximately five years ago I saw the only other American production, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre with Twiggy playing Gertrude and Harry Groener playing Coward.

I have a keen interest in anyone who takes on these difficult roles, since not everyone can duplicate or even attempt to get the charisma that Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward had on the British and American stage. I credit Ms. Lawrence as the prime influence in getting me interested in musicals when I was a teenager, seeing her in Lady in the Dark and meeting her afterwards. I had the great privilege of working with her on the film The Glass Menagerie later on. I met Noel Coward several times in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and backstage when his musical Pacific 1800 opened at the Drury Lane Theatre.

Mark Farrell has caught the essence of Noel Coward. Granted, Farrell - who is extremely talented in song, dance and accents - does not look like Mr. Coward, but he does get the great artist's drollness down pat. He is flawless in his understated acting. Celia Shuman, just a little too tall for Gertrude Lawrence, has some semblance to the great star. Celia most certainly has a better singing voice than Gertie. She is amusing in the comic scenes and touching in contemplative solos, especially in the second act.

There is not much depth seen in the relationship of these two giants of musicals, since there is only brief repartee between the songs and long scenes of several of their hits. The revue contains 18 songs selected from many hundreds of melodies and lyrics that Coward composed. Most are standards like "Mrs. Worthington." "Sail Away," "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," "Someday I'll Find You" and obscure songs like "I Travel Alone" and "Come the Wild, Wild Weather."

Noel and Gertie contains long scenes from Private Lives: the famous opening scene with Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence on the balcony overlooking the sea plus the last scene in which the characters are in a Parisian apartment. There are some wonderful, touching scenes from one of the short plays in Still Life that became Brief Encounter. It makes you want to see the full play with these two splendid actors. The Blithe Spirit scene does not come off well, as Ms. Shuman galumphs about the stage like a befuddled hummingbird, which really does not make sense unless you know the whole play. The high point of the two-and-a-half hour revue features the energetic moves of Farrell and Schuman as the vaudeville hoofers in the old time British Music Hall skit in Red Peppers. Both are top drawer with their red curly wigs and British tar uniforms. Even the backstage bickering between the two is right on the mark. The Parisian Pierrot scene from London Calling is charming, with Ms. Schman in a Pierrot outfit, but not memorable.

Let's face it, no one can ever duplicate or recapture the original performances and the glamour of these two legends of the stage, but Mark Farrell and Celia Shuman deliver an admirable portrayal of the two. For anyone who did not seen the originals on stage, this is as near as you will get to experiencing the spirit of the two. Director Barbara Damashek gives the production an effervescent feeling. Mark Hanson, backing the performers on piano, is very good. The stage design by Eric Sinkkonen is first rate, with a small proscenium arch with curtain at center stage and other props for the extended play scenes. You can see the stagehands moving various props around as the scene rapidly follows, making this a tight production.

Noel and Gertie plays through March 5 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. For tickets call 925-943-7469 or visit Rogers and Hammerstein's South Pacific is also playing at the center through March 19th. Center Stage next production is Arthur Giron's Becoming Memories opening on March 24th.

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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